As the era of outdoor games in the NHL enters its seventh season, the good people of Minnesota have to be wondering why they haven't hosted one yet. With the nickname "The State of Hockey" and the game as much a part of Minnesota's culture as football in Texas, it certainly would make sense the league go outside there. It won't happen this season, though. But what about next?
Well, it sounds like Minnesota is going to get an outdoor game next season and it could be held at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Wild are at the top of the list for an outdoor game next season, as in the 2015-16 campaign.
The league held a total of six outdoor games in 2013-14 with the Winter Classic, Heritage Classic and four Stadium Series games. It sounds like the league will have fewer outdoor contests in 2014-15 and Minnesota would have likely hosted one in February 2015. However, according to Russo, timing and logistics halted that plan.
The problem, I'm told, is the league wants the game to be here in February and for this upcoming season, the colleges had their schedules already booked and couldn't just insert an outdoor game into their schedules right before their playoffs. In addition, February is getting awfully close to Twins season and could cause havoc on Target Field's ... field.
The league source said, "At the end of the day, both of us determined that next year would be better. It's going to happen next year."
The other interesting twist is that the Wild were due to play the Dallas Stars, the team that used to be known as the Minnesota North Stars before heading to the Lone Star State in 1993. That is of course interesting for nostalgia purposes, but isn't necessarily the TV draw the NHL tends to crave in these big events.
It sounds like Minnesota will get its celebration of the state's favorite game, but it will be a bit later than anyone around there probably would have preferred. I've spoken with some Minnesota hockey fans recently that feel like they deserve a Winter Classic and not one of the less-heralded Stadium Series games. As much as I think they might have a case, I don't think the Wild are enough of a TV draw to get to host an actual Winter Classic, at least not yet.
The Winter Classic is a high-leverage event for the NHL. They have rotated the 14 possible slots teams could occupy over the past seven years (including the upcoming event on Jan. 1, 2015) among nine teams, all of which are from high-ratings markets. The league showed a bit more of an adventurous side in bringing the Toronto Maple Leafs across the border to make the first US-Canada Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., last January and it was a great success.
That said, it would probably be a surprise to see the Winter Classic come across the Mississippi River any time soon. And if it did, the St. Louis Blues might be the most likely to break that trend, though I think they would be a better candidate for a Stadium Series game as well. The Chicago Blackhawks are the western-most team to have hosted a Winter Classic, at Wrigley Field in 2009.
The other thing that Minnesota lacks in addition to a less TV-friendly market and national notoriety (Zach Parise aside) at the present, is a marquee venue. If they had a Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, that would increase the draw. You can't have the small TV market and a static new venue. The intrigue level is fairly low at this point.
The interesting aspect of Minnesota's future Winter Classic candidacy is the fact that a new NFL stadium is currently being built and Minneapolis will play host to the 2018 Super Bowl. As the Winter Classic grows and once Minnesota has a marquee venue (sorry, but Target Field doesn't bring that old intrigue of a Wrigley or Fenway) to help drive interest, there may be more of a chance. The projected seating capacity in the new football stadium could reach more than 72,000. That would help Minnesota's case as well. Here's the problem, though... that doesn't open until 2016 and it has a roof.
Target Field and the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium for its football team are probably are likely the only venues within the Twin Cities that could viably house such a game and keep the outdoor aesthetic. If the NHL goes to Minnesota for a Stadium Series game, I think it would be a good long while before they get a Winter Classic at a repeat site.
At the very least, Minnesota has to have a Stadium Series game and hopefully the 2016 plans don't fall through like this year's did. It just makes too much sense from the traditional aspect alone.
With the most hockey players of any state in the US (nearly 55,000 registered through USA Hockey in 2013-14), a robust tradition with high school and college hockey, 10,000 lakes for goodness sakes, Minnesota will be a great site for an outdoor game. It's just going to come a bit later than most would have liked, apparently.